Transgression | Critical Book Review

Transgression by Ben Stoltzfus claims to be “autofiction,” a fictionalized memoir that explores the inner turmoil of a gifted American teen navigating the intersection of fundamentalist religious beliefs, intellectual curiosity, and burgeoning sexual desires. Against the backdrop of Hitler’s aggressions and World War II, the protagonist grapples with personal demons that mirror the global conflicts of his time.

The Dual Influences: Faith and Fascination

Born to American educators in Bulgaria, the Stoltzfus family enjoys a comfortable life deeply rooted in Congregationalist religious values. The protagonist, a bright and mature child, has absorbed these teachings, yet two obsessions relentlessly torment him—fear of eternal damnation and an overwhelming curiosity about sex. In his own words, “My spirit has also been Balkanized, split and parceled like Bulgaria…my parents are Congregationalists, and I, after each Catechism lesson, am beginning to think like a Catholic.”

As world events unfold, the idyllic life they know crumbles. From Jewish friends altering their names to shortages of basic necessities, the signs of impending doom are evident. When Germany invades Bulgaria, the Stoltzfus family becomes refugees, embarking on a multi-year journey. Alongside these external upheavals, the protagonist grapples with profound questions of morality, redemption, and the preservation of one’s soul.

The Power of Prohibited Words

Stoltzfus and his friend Mireille share a love for books, particularly those that have been banned, now considered classics. Transgression is not just a tale of personal growth but also a celebration of literature’s role in providing insights into the human experience.

The narrative unfolds through the first-person perspective, recounted by a mature individual reflecting on past events. Memories flow in a stream of consciousness, with episodes etching themselves into the reader’s mind. Stoltzfus employs a unique storytelling technique, opting for descriptions of events over traditional scenes with character interactions. Dialogues are condensed into paragraphs marked by colons, while the narrative’s lyrical voice, at times stark and at others intricately designed, weaves a tapestry as rich as the Persian rugs collected by Mrs. Stoltzfus. While generally linear, the story treats episodes of varying significance with equal weight, offering introspective moments that add humor and depth to the protagonist’s character.

A Troubling Omission

One significant event early in the narrative triggers a spiritual crisis that haunts the protagonist throughout the story. In 2022, this event would be recognized as a crime, yet the protagonist’s lack of awareness about his own innocence is puzzling. Given that the narrative is delivered from the perspective of a mature narrator, this omission raises concerns.

Final Thoughts

Transgression is likely to appeal to readers interested in first-person historical accounts, moral philosophy, and coming-of-age narratives. It raises questions that resonate with modern life and offers ample material for discussion. As such, it makes an excellent choice for book clubs looking to delve into the complexities of faith, personal growth, and the power of the written word. However, it’s not without its shortcomings, and readers may find themselves grappling with certain unresolved aspects of the narrative.

Modern Book Details:

PublisherGenrePrint LengthISBN
Atmosphere PressLiterary & General Fiction / Historical Fiction290 pages978-1639885176

Transgression by Ben Stoltzfus claims to be “autofiction,” a fictionalized memoir that explores the inner turmoil of a gifted American teen navigating the intersection of fundamentalist religious beliefs, intellectual curiosity, and burgeoning sexual desires. Against the backdrop of Hitler’s aggressions and World War II, the protagonist grapples with personal demons that mirror the global conflicts…